CRAZY IS AS CRAZY DOES: Words do indeed matter, as we have been reminded a zillion times in the wake of certified madman Jared Lee Loughner’s rampage in Tucson City. I, for one, didn’t really need six bullet-riddled corpses, a brain-blasted congressmember holding on for dear life, and 12 innocent bystanders doing the same to recognize the use of crosshairs as a political visual aid — not to mention the battle cry “lock and reload!” — could never pass muster with Miss Manners. But in all my years, it never dawned on me — until Loughner opened my eyes — how the rules of grammar were really tools of totalitarianism. Strunk and White, it now turns out, were the Lenin and Stalin of thought police with their now infamous The Elements of Style. Is it merely a coincidence that that their book — required reading for anyone pretending to higher education — is almost exactly the same length as The Communist Manifesto? You tell me. As a beneficiary of a good Catholic school education, I learned two things: how to withstand corporal punishments without a whimper and how to tell the difference between a direct and an indirect object. And I can’t tell you how many times this latter skill has proven invaluable throughout the course of my life. Illuminated by the sharp glare of Loughner’s rantings, I better understand my teachers’ sinister motivations in steering us away from using exclamation points. An exclamation point, they warned us, was a cheap crutch prevailed upon by weak-minded losers incapable of conveying any sense of genuine excitement in their writing. In hindsight, I understand how this was all part of the plot to inculcate in us the requisite culture of emotional self-stultification needed for either the battlefield or the soul-killing grind of the 9-to-5.
The blood that Jared Lee Loughner — and yes, his middle name is actually Lee — spilled over the Safeway parking lot in Tucson has become the national ink blot upon which the feuding factions of American culture are imposing their opposing interpretations. He was a right-wing nut. He was a left-wing, pot-head punk rocker. He was a psychological sun spot that just flared up. Some members of Congress, trying desperately to look useful, have suggested new gun-control laws that would limit people in possession of firearms from being within 1,000 feet of any member of Congress, wherever that member of Congress might happen to be. Aside from being logistically silly, this proposal ignores the obvious political reality that the new Republican-controlled Congress would be far more likely to repeal the law of gravity than it would to restrict, in any small way, the inalienable right of American psychos to spray large crowds of people with semi-automatic gunfire.
Much blather has been devoted to the coarse and incendiary quality of our public bloviations. If all blow-hards could be shamed into shutting our collective pie-holes for just five minutes, the effect would be both immediate and salubrious. But I’m not sure how many latent homicidal maniacs might hold their fire. We live in a violent country where people under stress tend to explode. When former Santa Barbara postal worker Jennifer San Marco went ballistic five years ago, killing a neighbor, six of her Goleta post office coworkers, and then herself, there was little evidence linking her eruption to the vicious tone of political discourse. Likewise, when former UCSB student David Attias plowed his 1991 Saab — given to him by his parents as a bribe to take his medications — into a crowd of Isla Vista students one Friday night 10 years ago, killing four, he thought he was “the Angel of Death,” not a crypto-fascist populist looking to save the gold standard from one-worlders and the great Jewish-communist-banker conspiracy.
To the extent Tucson qualifies as a wake-up call for anything, it should be for the dangerously unstable state of mental health care in this country. Unlike gun control, good manners, or even common sense, it offers at least the hypothetical opportunity for meaningful action and positive improvement. To the extent there’s any good news on the mental health front, it’s that mental health care was included in the health-care reform package just passed by Congress and President Barack Obama. Naturally, it is the first thing that the new Republican majority in Congress is in a pants-on-fire hurry to repeal. In California, mental health care has vacillated violently from frying pan to fire, and in the unvarnished budget plan just unveiled by new Governor Jerry Brown — refreshingly and depressingly bereft of the smoke-and-mirror gimmicky of budgets past — mental health funding is poised, yet again, to take it in the shorts. Brown — struggling with a $28-billion shortfall — has proposed “borrowing” the $900 million a year collected via Proposition 63, which was passed in 2004 to fund new and innovative mental health programs by taxing millionaires. Translated into local dollars, that’s $8 million to $9 million a year that county mental health workers will have to do without. When state voters approved Prop. 63, they intended the funds collected to augment existing programs, not to backfill existing programs slashed by cash-strapped bureaucrats and care providers. But that’s exactly what has happened. If Brown’s proposal passes, the howl we’ll hear will be very loud indeed. For those who think State Street has been taken over by the homeless and the mentally ill — à la Night of the Living Dead — you ain’t seen nothing. Efforts to airbrush the problem by rearranging benches on the 800 and 900 blocks of State Street — for which City Hall is on the hook for $50,000 — will be less than futile. Sadly, the political landscape for mental health programs has grown so bleak that the head of the S.B. Mental Health Association, Annmarie Cameron, regards the Brown proposal as a positive alternative. Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, she said, tried to kill the program outright not once but twice. Brown may be robbing it blind, she said, but at least he’s keeping it alive. When distinctions such as this can legitimately be regarded as “positive,” we are all living in a world of hurt. I don’t pretend to know how Jared Lee Loughner would put it, but up with this is something with which none of us should have to put.